By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Hero and Leander is not the most famous tragic love story from classical mythology, but after all, there are quite a few other such stories to choose from. When it comes to classical myth, we might turn to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Dido and Aeneas, or Theseus and Ariadne, or Echo and Narcissus, or any number of other doomed love stories.
But the myth of Hero and Leader is about lovers kept apart by circumstances, and is as powerful as these other tales. What does the story mean, though? Does it have a deeper meaning? Before we provide an analysis of the myth’s key features, let’s recap the ‘plot’ of Hero and Leander.
Hero and Leander myth: plot summary
Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. She was in love with a young man named Leander. They loved each other and wanted to be together.
The only problem was that Hero was in Sestos, located on the European side of the Hellespont (now better-known as the Dardanelles strait), while Leander lived in Abydos, which was on the Asian side of the Hellespont. The two lovers were separated by a strait of water which kept them apart.
However, such was Leander’s love for Hero, that he would nightly swim the Hellespont so he could visit her. Then, after their nightly tryst, he would have to swim back to Abydos.
The only problem was that swimming at night in those days meant you had the light of the moon and stars to guide you and little else. There was no electric light, after all! As a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero lived in a tower in Sestos.
This meant that she could light a lamp in the tower which would act as a lighthouse, a beacon, lighting the way for her lover so he could see his way across to her. By hatching this plan so they could see each other, Hero and Leander were able to snatch a few hours together every night.
But on one stormy night, the flame in the lamp was blown out, leaving Leander without a beacon to guide the way. He lost sight of the shore, and, unable to see where he was swimming and with the storm making the waves higher and higher, he drowned.
The next morning, when Hero looked down and discovered his body washed up on the rocks below, she threw herself to her death, unwilling to live without him. As the tower overlooked the water, by throwing herself into the Hellespont she would join him in death.
Hero and Leander myth: analysis
The story of Hero and Leander is, to use modern parlance, the ultimate summer fling. According to Stephen Fry in Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold (Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths), Hero and Leander met during the Festival of Aphrodite, and Hero – whose head was turned by no other male admirer – took an interest in Leander for some reason.
He seems to have had a charming way with words: Hero was a virgin when he met her, and she was a priestess after all, but Leander managed to sweet-talk her into his bed (or, more accurately, her bed, with him) by telling her that, as she was a priestess of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, it would be inappropriate for her not to know what love was. She shouldn’t remain a virgin if she is a priestess of the goddess of love!
And Leander’s attempts to woo Hero meant that, in the short time they had together, they not only spent time with each other but made love, too. They got to know the pleasures of physical intimacy, even though they knew they could only be together secretly at night. Of course, Leander’s determination to swim the Hellespont, and back, every night is a sign of his dedication to Hero and his determination to be with her. Not even the sea can keep them apart.
Nor is the tragic end of Hero and Leander’s relationship, and Leander’s death, the result of jealous gods or goddesses (as it so often is in the Greek myths). In the end, it just happens to be a stormy night one night, and it’s by chance that Hero’s lamp is blown out and Leander loses his way, dying in the water. His death is, to use the modern legal phrase, death by misadventure; hers, a result of having known love and then had it taken away from her.
In the late sixteenth century, the pioneering playwright of the London stage, Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), began writing a long narrative poem about the story of Hero and Leander. He died before he could finish it, and it was completed by another hand (probably George Chapman, who as a translator of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey knew a thing or two about classical myth). Marlowe’s poem begins:
On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,
In view and opposite two cities stood,
Sea-borderers, disjoin’d by Neptune’s might;
The one Abydos, the other Sestos hight.
At Sestos Hero dwelt; Hero the fair,
Whom young Apollo courted for her hair,
And offer’d as a dower his burning throne,
Where she could sit for men to gaze upon.
The outside of her garments were of lawn,
The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;
Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,
Where Venus in her naked glory strove
To please the careless and disdainful eyes
Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;
Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,
Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.
More recently, in the early twentieth century, the poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) drew upon the story of Hero and Leander to convey the hardship we go to just to experience fleeting happiness:
Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.
By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.
Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.